© Norman Sperling, March 8, 2011; updated May 10, 2011
JIR's newest anthology (our 12th!) selects articles for sharp, science-minded high school students.
* ISBN 0-913399-12-4
* ISBN 13: 978-0-913399-12-5
* 8.375 x 5.375 x 0.52 inches
* 10.85 ounces = 307 grams
* 222 pages
* Orders received by May 20, 2011: $14.95
* publication May 2011
Over 3/4 of JIR articles assume longer life-experiences, or higher scientific education, than high school. So we have very few high school subscribers. But over the decades we have published more than enough articles to occupy ... amuse ... and captivate high schoolers. Give them this book:
* for holidays, birthdays, graduation
* to tide them over a long trip or a boring recuperation
* and to encourage thinking and laughing at the same time.
To sample the flavor, here are a few of the topics:
Yo Mama jokes
Physicist MacDonald's Farm
Watched pot never boils
Budgies as weapons
Even prime numbers
The largest integer
Rebuttal to Multiplication
Suplurals and zero-order terms
Crossword puzzle from Hell
Nature versus Nurture:
Triplets raised apart
Rock - Paper - Scissors
Ben Franklin was twins
Marmite® versus Vegemite®
Deep space hand salutes
and several cool songs
If you assemble a kit to give along with the book, include:
* Tootsie® pops
* cat hair
* and Jell-O®
Yes, a lot of articles are really sweet.
The imaginary invisible companion described in one article is supplied free with the book.
Don't Try This in High School has only a few molecules of overlap with our other current anthology, This Book Warps Space and Time, published by Andrews McMeel. Warps Space selects short, quick, inoffensive, and easy items. Don't Try This includes much longer articles, assumes understanding high school science courses, and - appealing to high schoolers - can't be totally inoffensive. But people who like either, and want more, should dive right into the other.
Dewey: 502.07 science humor
Library of Congress: Q167 science humor
British Library: Q167 science humour
Dental: nitrous oxide
Epidemiology: highly infectious
Gilbert & Sullivan: Major General
Lux: brilliant, sparkling
Ottewell: 8 3/8 inches
Stratigraphy: Upper Anthropocene
© Norman Sperling, December 25, 2010
What if your club, institution, or company gets access to a lot of the Science-interested public for a few days? What if they come to you, or meet you in a nice venue? What messages would you most want to get across? What could those contacts be best used for? What if you had 10 months to prepare?
Around San Francisco, the Bay Area Science Festival is planned for October 29 - November 6, 2011. But hardly anyone I talk to has heard about it yet!
One indication that the planning's cast in Jell-O® rather than concrete is that they say it's going to be a 10-day event, but the days they list total 9. So it's not too late to get involved. If you're in the Bay Area, think through your optimum result from such a festival. Think through how to achieve it. Then contact the Festival folks to make sure you get included. I'd guess that the more self-contained your package, the easier it should be for them to include.
Here's what I've gleaned so far:
© Norman Sperling, December 19, 2010
Exam week holds terrors for teachers as well as students. This week, I wallowed in eye-strain by reading 61 3-hour intro-astro essay finals on the prompt: Starting with hydrogen and time, narrate how the Universe began and evolved to us, here, now.
We had a record number of A+ essays, and not a single F. I expected their bloopers to fill a big post, but only found these 5:
* [Newton's Law of Gravity described] why we are orbitting the moon.
* Neuron stars are created by supernovas. They are made entirely of neurons.
* In the "oscillating universe" theory, there will be a Big Bang and then a Big Crunch (where everything comes back together) every 140 years.
* [Kepler's Third Law] No matter where in orbit the area formed by the diameter of the planet to the sun will always be equal.
* Along with gas giants, black holes are also observed on Earth.
+ + +
Here are cosmology bloopers from classes longer ago:
* The beginning of the Universe is not 100% correct.
* The greater the mass of an object the faster it is moving away from the sun.
* Our universe was formed by the third star.
* The Big Bang Theory ... states that the universe was created due to particles and organisms that lay dormant until they collided, and the Big Bang occurred.
* We have observational proof of the Big Bang in the form of backward radiation.
* This Big Bang supposedly occured thirteen pt. seven years ago.
* [The Bang-Bang] theory was used when nearby objects were blue shifted and far away objects were red shifted.
* the Red Shift ... All the objects that is far away from here supposedly marked in red.
* The Big Bang theory states that in order to know what was going on in the universe a million years ago, you would have to have watched it two million years ago.
* Nature developed as an explosion in the heavens that fell into the waters and began to grow plants and fish and other underwater creatures.
* Before the Big Bang, all the living creatures such as dinasours had been totally dieseased and new birth has been adopted to this new young planets.
* There was so much bonding and chemical energy that it all spontaneously combusted and made a universe.
* The universe started with that big-bang. A big rock or a galaxy hit the earth and it came to pieces. The fusion up in the galaxy, the pieces, the dust of earth came back together. Before the big-bang, the earth was without water, only dust and volcanos and was extremely hot. After the big-bang, oceans were discovery. The bacteria from the water of oceans transform dinosaurs. The water which have H2O made the air as oxygen. So we can breath. Soon, the ocean's water wet it the sands, that it started growing plants on the sands and later it became trees and then a forest. The leaves from plants and trees were food for the dinosours. There was a big earthquake that opened up the lands and swallowed all the dinosours. Later the bacteria and germs started to form in molecules and human being started to form. That's how the universe was form.
* When density increases the university begins to contract everywhere.
* Unknown is known.
* Every concept is still a theory until it can be proven false.
+ + +
An excellent student wrote at the very end "I have spent all my time and just scratched the surface." That's how I feel after teaching the whole course ... and after studying my whole career.
© Norman Sperling, December 12, 2010
Instant-A Dare! Any student who solves this problem, to the satisfaction of experts in this specialty, gets an instant A for this entire course, regardless of anything else.
My astronomy students see this message 20 or 30 times a semester. I use it whenever a topic isn't resolved, whenever something remains unknown or not understood - such as magnetic fields. Textbooks' traditional "positivist" style systematically tells what IS known, and determinedly leaves out what ISN'T known. This gives students the false impression that Science is all about stuff that's already securely known. Textbooks usually neglect the thrill of the chase, and systematically avoid mentioning what isn't known.
So I make quite a point of it. I even emphasize it with this offer of an "Instant A".
Students I re-encounter many years after they took my course still remember the offer and its point.
Of course, this is not just a surface issue.
I point out that Science doesn't yet understand most of Nature's workings. That way students should be able to figure out where future discoveries fit in. And I make sure to emphasize that this is not only true in astronomy, but in all Sciences and many other scholarly fields.
I also distinguish which information is "cast in concrete" from items that are progressively less firm: "cast in Jell-O"®, or even "cast in hot air". Switching metaphors, I tell them that certain items deserve to be "written in ink", but others should only be "written in pencil", because they're merely this year's best estimate. Still other points should be written in "fuzzy pencil" or "faint fuzzy pencil" according to how weakly we grasp them.
I often point out that when something doesn't yet deserve to be written in ink, or is so unknown it would earn my Instant A, that's a dare. A dare to the students to go solve that. They're sharp and clever and knowledgeable, so they just might be the people to solve such problems.
Certain problems may not need better data, they might just need a different point of view. Most professional astronomers share a lot of experiences to which to compare things - pattern-recognition. My students come from a far richer variety of national, cultural, and religious heritages, travel experiences, and previous schooling. Perhaps somewhere among that richer trove of things to compare to, someone will recognize a new pattern. I alert them to be on the lookout. You, too.
Several of these problems are worth a lot more than an A in intro-astro. Many would make splendid thesis topics. Some would put their solvers on fast-tracks to tenure. Identifying or disproving dark energy is worth a big prize.
So far, no student has won an "Instant A". Several have brought up points that I had to think about for weeks, and consult experts about, though none has turned into a true scientific advance. I'd give most of those students an A for scientific excellence anyway, but almost all of them were already earning an A.
I'm moving into an RV and simply can't keep the library I've built over 50 years. (What I do next is described at www.everythingintheuniverse.com/node/76.)
* Thousands of books, mostly <$10.
* These are the best copies I ever got, the ones I kept for myself.
* Many scholarly, lots of popularizations at all levels.
* A few hundred are from the 1800s.
* Over 100 are autographed by their authors.
* Runs of many science periodicals.
* Miscellaneous clippings, brochures, pamphlets ...
Cash preferred. Checks and time-terms accepted from people I know, and people they vouch for personally. PayPal possible, but I'm not set up for credit cards.
11 AM to 4 PM
Saturday, August 11, 2012
413 Poinsettia Avenue, San Mateo, CA 94403
(enter left of the garage, through the courtyard)
near the Hillsdale exit off US-101
Landline: 650-573-7125 (expires about September 22)
and much, much more
Histories of Science, and specific sciences
Heroes of Science
and miscellaneous other interests
The family is also selling kids' bikes, a drum set, 1990 Ford van ($1990), and (closer to September 22) household furniture and stuff ... and then, of course, the house itself. I'll move about September 22, perhaps to Pittsburg, CA, for the fall, then Trek in the RV.
Wonderfest is the San Francisco Bay Area's free science festival. wonderfest.org . I'll be at Stanford's Hewlett Teaching Center on Saturday, 4-7 PM, for the Amateur Science Forum, and at UC Berkeley's Stanley Hall Sunday, Noon-4 PM, for the Science Expo. I have a delicious array of new and used science books (back to the 1800s) and some other neat stuff to sell at Berkeley. I'd love to know what you think of my new blog!
Norman Sperling, in Teaching&, Sonoma State University, April 1989, p3.
I used to be plagued by cheaters in my large Astronomy 100 sections, and have evolved mechanisms to minimize it.
The California State University system has a policy on cheating. The part of Title 5 of the State Code that is reprinted in every student's catalog specifies that the penalty for cheating is expulsion from the CSU system! That constitutes abundant warning to students, as well as full definition of sanctions.
Hardly any professors file such charges. Virtually all handle cheating at a much lower level – making cheaters re-do the offending test or paper, or giving an F for that paper. A few give an F for the course. But so few file campus-level charges that, when I did so a few years ago, administrators had to look up the procedure.
From the cheater's viewpoint, course-level sanctions are trivial. Cheaters typically feel that they're going to do poorly on that paper anyway, so they have nothing to lose. At worst, if caught, they do indeed flunk it. Even if the penalty is an F in the course, the Transcript just shows failure, not cause. Thus, faculty might very well have caught your cheaters before. How could you tell? Those professors' policies taught the students that they can keep cheating with near-impunity.
Notice the explicit warning from my syllabus:
"Regardless of anything you may have gotten away with elsewhere, ANY cheating or plagiarism in my class will be prosecuted to the FULL extent permissible. Cheating and plagiarism are offenses against the CSU system, punishable by expulsion from the CSU system. Most of my students work hard for their grades, and I vigorously defend the value of their earned credit. In recent terms I have detected several different types of cheating, and will absolutely not tolerate it. As far as I know, no student I've caught is in the CSU system any more."
I read this out loud on the first day, in a tone leaving no doubt. Thus, all students who are tempted to cheat know that I will buck for expulsion when I catch them. When I catch a cheater, I do indeed file the strongest case I can with the administration, invariable arguing for expulsion. While administrators are very reluctant to expel, they frequently agree to suspend. I can tell a class that I intend to do this, with a perfectly straight face, that I indeed do this, with no sympathy extended after the infraction. This, and only this, practice teaches students that we mean what we say, and that there is an unacceptable penalty for cheating, making the gamble undesirable.
Incidents of cheating have dropped precipitously in my classes. When I first started including that paragraph, they dropped to about a case a year. And since I began reading it aloud, with feeling, in the first session, I have had just one case – a student who hadn't been there the first day. From this, I conclude that following state law, and saying so clearly, virtually eliminates cheating. Lesser practices merely school cheaters in becoming the next generation of embezzlers and the like.
I therefore urge all instructors to absolutely renounce all sympathy for cheaters, to prosecute every case and buck for expulsion, and to sincerely promise this to every class, unmistakably, both in writing and orally. It will tell the vast majority of our students that we defend hard-earned credit, that we mean what we say, and that college is for people who want to learn. And it will reduce cheating to very low levels.
Selected and arranged by Carl C. Gaither and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither. Illustrated by Andrew Slocombe. Bristol and Philadelphia: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. xv + 481 pages. Paperback. 0-7503-0635-1. $29.99.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #3, May 2005, p31.
Only a fraction of the quotations in this entertaining compendium are humorous, but quite a lot of them are witty, and most are wise. You can dip into it anywhere, and never fail to be diverted for however long you want, from seconds to hours.
"A drug is a substance which when injected into a guinea pig produces a scientific paper."
This book is meant not only for amusement but for scholarly reference. Anyone wanting to include a relevant quotation (famous or not) in their own writings can use this volume to find the best quotation. The Gaithers provide an index of subjects, by author. They also provide a separate index of authors, by subject. Whichever you have, and whichever you want, this book helps you get the right thing, and get it right. The compilers have scrupulously traced quotations to their sources, listed in an exhaustive 26-page bibliography. Readers finding gems from a source they never heard of can easily track down the whole book. Equally, it can remind you of an old favorite that's worth looking up again.
Max Planck: "An Experiment is a question which Science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature's answer."
The cartoons by Andrew Slocombe fill out pages in good humor. Most are located near the topic of the cartoon.
Dr. Leonard McCoy: "I'm a doctor, not an escalator."
"I'm a doctor, not a brick layer."
"I'm a doctor, not a mechanic."
"I'm a doctor, not a coal miner."
"I'm a doctor, not an engineer."
This book has extremely few proofing errors. The repetition of quotes from page 249 on page 250 are the worst – and trivial. Typography, printing, and binding, are all excellent, as expected from Institute of Physics Publishing. Other quotation books in the Gaithers' series from the same publisher, in similar bindings, cover most sciences and engineering.
John Allen Paulos: "Consider a precise number that is well known to generations of parents and doctors: the normal human body temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit. Recent investigations involving millions of measurements reveal that this number is wrong; normal human body temperature is actually 98.2° Fahrenheit. The fault, however, lies not with Dr. Wunderlich's original measurements – they were averaged and sensibly rounded to the nearest degree: 37° Celsius. When this temperature was converted to Fahrenheit, however, the rounding was forgotten and 98.6° was taken to be accurate to the nearest tenth of a degree. Had the original interval between 36.5° and 37.5° Celsius been translated, the equivalent Fahrenheit temperatures would have ranged from 97.7° to 99.5°. Apparently, discalulia can even cause fevers."
Even in such a fine resource, I can quibble with a few choices. I wish the dates were included, where known. A lot of medicine has changed from dangerous, a few hundred years ago, to comparatively safe. Quotations of wisdom vary by the realities of the times, and those times are not noted.
A few items are parody songs – meant to be sung to the tune of a well-known song. But that isn't noted till the end of each item, by which time the reader has already read it unmusically. When an item should be sung to a certain tune, tell the reader before starting the lyrics.
"Cold: A curious ailment that only people who are not doctors know how to cure."
The decision to start each section on a new page means that the many sections with one or a few entries leave lots of white space.
This book belongs in many of the same places that JIR belongs: in all medical libraries and staff lounges, and with professionals who could use a diversion. It would make a good gift, and a good award.
Will Rogers: "We were primitive people when I was a kid. There were only a mighty few known diseases. Gunshot wounds, broken legs, toothache, fits, and anything that hurt you from the lower end of your neck down was known as a bellyache."
By Donald E. Simanek and John C. Holden
Bristol, UK: Institute of Physics Publishing, 2002. 0-7503-0714-5. xii + 310 pages. Hardbound.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48 #4, November 2004, p34.
If you like JIR, you'll love Science Askew. Science satires, cartoons, puns, and parodies range from chapter-long tales down to punchy 1-liners.
Among the rules of the lab:
Experiments must be reproducible; they should fail the same way each time.
Experience is directly proportional to equipment ruined.
Teamwork is essential; it allows you to blame someone else.
My reaction upon reading most of the articles was "we should run this item in JIR!". But we reprinted an entire chapter in the last issue, and we published 2 of the articles (by the illustrator, retired geologist John C. Holden) in the 1970s, and the whole thing is already in a nifty package – this book.
From the computer expert's glossary:
On-line: The idea that a human being should always be accessible to a computer.
Machine-Independent Program: A program that will not run on any machine.
Documentation: Instructions translated from Swedish by Japanese for English-speaking people.
Simanek and Holden include fuel for debunking pseudoscience, and teaching students the distinctions. Ever the teacher, Simanek takes several opportunities to "talk straight" and point out legitimate science lessons. The pair of articles arguing opposing sides of the DHMO "controversy" afford chuckles, as well as stimulation for student exercises. "Di-Hydrogen Monoxide", of course, is H2O.
What engineers say and what they mean by it:
"Test results were extremely gratifying": It works, and are we ever surprised!
"The entire concept will have to be abandoned": The only guy who understood the thing quit.
"The designs are well within allowable limits": We just barely made it, by stretching a point or 2.
Holden contributes many clever and witty illustrations. Several other authors appear too, along with some items that have circulated worldwide on the Web which could not be traced to their original authors.
Some of Simanek's Laws of Statistics:
Anyone who trusts in statistics is taking a chance.
When 2 lines of a graph cross, that must be significant.
Once human subjects find out what you have discovered about their behavior, they begin to behave differently.
There are no important typos, and the trivial ones won't distract or confuse anyone. An illustration is mis-numbered, as is a footnote, but context makes the meanings clear. The illustration on page 110 misspells innumeracy and misperception. Page 273 gives the wrong dates for astrophysicist Thornton Page; they should be 1913-1996 instead of 1884-1952, which are the dates of physicist Leigh Page. At the time I found these little errors, none of them was posted on Science Askew's website, www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/askewcom.htm. All the tiny errors posted there, I missed.
Among the "do-it" 1-liners:
Professors do it absent-mindedly
Cosmologists do it with a bang
Logicians do it symbolically
Institute of Physics Publishing produced this book extremely well. The type is clear, the illustrations crisp, and all the parts are where they ought to be, except that there is no index. The paper is very high quality. The binding is excellent, comfortable, tight, and ought to last a long time. That's essential for this book, because the owner, friends, students, visitors, and everyone else lucky enough to happen upon it will dip into it time after time.
Despite excellent achievements by the authors and producers, this book has not been reviewed or advertised as much as it merits because the publisher refuses to send out many review copies, advertises very little outside its own periodicals, and discourages retailers. It took JIR considerable extra effort to wrest copies from the publisher, but this book is positively worth it.
Science Askew belongs in academic libraries, both for amusement and to stimulate classwork. Scientists, doctors, and educators will love this book. And it makes a splendid gift for anyone with technical knowledge and a sense of – or need for – humor.
© 2002 Norman Sperling. Excerpted from What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You, 0-913399-04-3.
Whichever textbook you use, you need to understand its context.
Your textbook contains a lot of features to help you learn the concepts and information. Use the captions, the glossary, the learning objectives, the chapter-end questions, and the further readings, every time they'll help you learn, not only when your prof assigns them.
Your textbook is far more up-to-date, much better illustrated, and far more informative than
my introductory-astronomy textbook:
George Abell: Exploration of the Universe, 1964
I used George Abell's Exploration of the Universe in 1965 as a freshman at Michigan State. It was exciting! Not only did it shovel nifty information at me, it conveyed the excitement of research, and the latest perspectives. It even included a few color pictures. (Textbooks didn't get color on every page till the late 1980s. Prices skyrocketed because that's a lot more expensive to prepare and print.)
When I look at Abell's textbook now, however, I cannot help but chuckle. It is so naïve, so ignorant! The pictures look crude, because we have much better technology nowadays. The data are elementary. Spacecraft had only just reached Mars and Venus. Some concepts seem rather strange because we think of those things differently now. There is no mention of background radiation (discovered later that year) or pulsars (they weren't discovered till 1968), and no spacecraft pictures of Jupiter. Computers were huge, clunky, and rare. In so many ways, they didn't understand their clues – they didn't know impact craters pepper the whole solar system, and they didn't know rings circle all the big planets.
But my text was certainly a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era. The fact that it gave me no hint of all that was to come reveals a trait common to most textbooks: they are overly-positive. They concentrate so much on what they DO know that they neglect to point out what they DON'T know.
Abell's book was definitely a big improvement over the previous dominant textbook:
Robert H. Baker: Astronomy, 1930
Baker's book went through 10 editions from 1930 clear into the 1970s, a huge span for any textbook. I often checked it out of my city library while in high school, and was surprised it was not the one my prof required in college … surprised, and soon happy. That's because Abell deliberately included astronomy's excitement, and Baker never did. All the data and pictures and understandings of its time are there – the pictures were the very best available – but recited in a dry, declaratory way. That's the kind of person Baker was. Charles J. Peterson relays this story witnessed by a former student of Baker's:
One day a student approached Baker in his office at the University of Illinois to seek help on a concept which he was having difficulty understanding. Baker reached over to his bookshelf for the latest edition of his text. He thumbed to the relevant page and proceeded to read the paragraph pertaining to the student's inquiry.
"I don't understand," responded the student.
Baker read the paragraph a second time.
"That's what I don't understand," replied the student.
Baker then read the paragraph for a third time.
"But I still don't understand," lamented the poor student.
Baker returned the volume to the bookshelf and turned to face the student. "I'm sorry, but I can't help you," he said. "I've given it the best shot I can."
Baker's book is a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era, but laughable now. It is so naïve, so ignorant! How primitive they were! They didn't know that galaxies were a big story. Spacecraft were still science fiction. Computers were undreamt of. And so on. Astronomers back then were just as smart and clever as modern ones, but they had a lot less to go on, and it shows.
Nevertheless, Baker's book marked a major improvement over:
Forest Ray Moulton: Astronomy, 1906
Moulton was a leading astronomer of his time, teaming with Thomas C. Chamberlain to propose how the solar system might have formed as a result of another star coming very close to the Sun. Though later data disproved the Chamberlain-Moulton theory, it was advanced for its era.
Moulton's book is now a giggle-factory. The writing is not just passive-dull but downright stodgy. The contents are so naïve, so ignorant! This was before radio astronomy, before anyone knew how fusion works. It's not that much is wrong, but it sure makes you appreciate how much has been learned since then.
Yet it, too, was a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era: full of the latest data, and a few recent pictures. And Moulton marched in the forefront of education: his book was also chopped into small sections and marketed for correspondence courses, an early form of "distance learning". Moulton's textbook first appeared in 1906, and remained in print through the edition of 1938.
For all its shortcomings, Moulton's text was a major improvement over the previous dominant text:
Charles A. Young: A Textbook of General Astronomy for Colleges and Scientific Schools, 1888
Young was a veritable textbook factory. He produced several different levels of text, topped by this full-math version for the most technical students, and cut down successively for non-math college students, high-school students, and, in Lessons in Astronomy, for junior-high. I've often thought that should have been titled "Lessens" because of how much Young lessened the book. General Astronomy went through about 7 editions from 1888 to 1916.
This book tells you what astronomy knew at the time. It is so naïve, so ignorant! This was before most astrophotography, before mountaintop observatories, before anyone understood stellar spectra or how celestial objects evolve. Reading and laughing at an edition of this, which a student had picked up at a flea market, got me started in studying old textbooks. (Thank you, Carin!) Despite how poorly it has aged, it was a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its age. And, in turn, a major improvement over:
J. Dorman Steele: A Fourteen Weeks Course in Astronomy, 1869
Steele was also a textbook-factory. He wrote A Fourteen Weeks Course in Chemistry, A Fourteen Weeks Course in Natural Philosophy, A Fourteen Weeks Course in Geology and others. They were illustrated with the latest woodcuts. And they told what astronomy understood back then. It is so naïve, so ignorant! And so awkward! They didn't yet have mountaintop observatories or much stellar spectroscopy. If you read Steele's book now, read it for humor or history, not for modern astronomy. Modern it is NOT! Steele published several editions from 1869 to 1884. But it was a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era. And, especially for readability, a huge improvement over:
Sir John Herschel: Outlines of Astronomy, 1830
For the 90 years from the time the author's father, William Herschel, discovered Uranus in 1781, till John Herschel died in 1871, they were dominant authorities. His is not merely a textbook but a compendium: it is intended to record full information about the entire subject. Practically every astronomer who could read English kept a copy of this book as the first place to check for information. Usually, they could find answers in Herschel. Only if this source failed did they seek another. And yet any student passing intro-astro now should be able to amplify many of the topics. Herschel's book isn't wrong, but it is very fragmentary.
The first edition was an instant hit in 1830, and new editions kept coming, and coming, and coming. John Herschel died 41 years later, but the book still stayed in print; the final edition came out in 1905. A 75-year press run! Staggering!
Though this book contains all the information you could want, it conveys absolutely no interest at all. Even the dullest lecturer is better than this! All the excitement had to come from the reader, because none can be found in the book itself. And, of course, the stilted language further highlights its age. It is so naïve, so ignorant, so turgid! This was before spectroscopy, before the physical nature of most celestial objects could even be described. Yet it was globally-proclaimed as a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era. And it was quite an improvement over:
John Bonnycastle: An Introduction of Astronomy in a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to his Pupil, 1786
This text is the earliest to which I've been able to trace the modern arrangement of topics. While things have certainly changed a lot in proportions and details, it seems to have been Bonnycastle whose arrangement was tweaked by succeeding authors to evolve into the common one used today.
This book is hard to read, not only because of its antiquated language, but also because of its antiquated typography: the "s" is a half-crossed "f", "ct" uses a flowery ligature, and so on. The bulk of this book deals with how things move, because almost nothing was known about what they are physically made of. This was before telescopes grew wider than 25 cm. This book is a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era. 8 editions of Bonnycastle's book were published in England between 1786 and 1822. It is so naïve, so ignorant! And so hilarious! Yet, in its time, it was a major improvement over:
James Ferguson: An Easy Introduction to Astronomy, for Young Gentlemen and Ladies: Describing The Figure, Motions, and Dimensions of the Earth; the different Seasons; Gravity and Light; the Solar System; the Transit of Venus, and its Use in Astronomy; the Moon's Motion and Phases; the Eclipses of the Sun and Moon; the Cause of the Ebbing and Flowing of the Sea, &c., 1768
James Ferguson had a full-size text (said to have interested William Herschel in astronomy) as well as this cut-down version.
This one takes the literary form of a dialog between college-man Neander and his sister Eudosia. Neander is home for term break, and his sister is pumping him for all the neat stuff he learned in his astronomy course. In the middle of page 75, Eudosia sighs.
Neander: Why do you sigh, Eudosia?
Eudosia: Because there is not an university for ladies as well as for gentlemen. Why, Neander, should our sex be kept in total ignorance of any science, which would make us as much better than we are, as it would make us wiser?
Neander: You are far from being singular in this respect. I have the pleasure of being acquainted with many ladies who think as you do. But if fathers would do justice to their daughters, brothers to their sisters, and husbands to their wives, there would be no occasion for an university for the ladies; because, if those could not instruct these themselves, they might find others who could. And the consequence would be, that the ladies would have a rational way of spending their time at home, and would have no taste for the too common and expensive ways of murdering it, by going abroad to card-tables, balls, and plays: and then, how much better wives, mothers, and mistresses they would be, is obvious to the common sense of mankind. – The misfortune is, there are but few men who know these things: and where that is the case, they think the ladies have no business with them; and very absurdly imagine, because they know nothing of science themselves, that it is beyond the reach of women's capacities.
Eudosia: But is there no danger of our sex's become too vain and proud, if they understood these things as well as you do?
Neander: I am surprised to hear you talk so oddly. – Have you forgot what you told me two days ago? namely, that if you had been proud before, the knowledge of Astronomy, you believed, would make you humble?
Neander's name means "new man". New, because he's going to college, even though he is from the newly risen moneyed commoners. Until his time, to attend either Oxford or Cambridge (the only colleges in England), one had to be a white, male, member of the Church of England, and member either of the nobility or the clergy. By that standard, I suppose that not one single one of my thousands of students would get into college! How about you? Well, they let us all in now. Let's make the best of it while we're here!
The Ferguson book now makes great comedy for its literary form, as well as for its phrasing and scientific contents. It is so naïve, so ignorant! And so hilarious! This was before Uranus was discovered, before gravity was proven to work beyond the solar system. The first edition was published in England in 1768, and the last in the US in 1819. Yet it was a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its times, and a major improvement over:
William Whiston: Astronomical Lectures Read in the Publick Schools at Cambridge, 1715
Whiston was Isaac Newton's hand-picked successor as Lucasian professor at Cambridge. (Other famous Lucasian professors: early 2000s – Stephen Hawking; 2400s – Cmdr. Data.) Whiston had a varied career worth looking into. This book poses many difficulties for the modern reader: antiquated typography, stilted phrasing, passive dullness, and overwhelming concern with the today-minor issue of sky motions. Whiston published a Latin edition in 1707, his first English edition in 1715, and a second in 1727, the year Newton died. It is so naïve, so ignorant! And so hilarious! This was before achromatic telescopes, before the first predicted return of Halley's Comet. While the contents aren't wrong, they barely hint at the main thrusts of modern science. Yet Whiston's book was, in its turn, a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of its era, and a major improvement over its predecessors ...
Past, Present and Future
You get the point. Astronomy (if not its college textbooks) goes back to early printing, to mediaeval manuscripts, to ancient scrolls, to cuneiform clay tablets and hieroglyphic-engraved stone monuments. And because scientific knowledge progresses, each edition ages rather poorly, and after a while serves better as a poor example than a good one.
Your text stands at the front of this long line. It is the modern culmination of all these successive approximations to what astronomers had learned about the universe. It is a good-faith rendition of the astronomy of right now. It tells the best anyone knows. With spacecraft that have gone as far as ours, with telescopes as big as ours, this is what we have learned.
And it won't end with your book! The author is probably already updating it for the next edition. And future authors will publish new ones after that. Some of what it says may be wrong, but since we don't know which things, we teach as best we know. Many future discoveries will bring system to current odds-and-ends. Many future discoveries will bring up important aspects scarcely hinted at so far. But we can't teach them, because that stuff hasn't been learned yet.
20 years from now, we'll know a lot better than some of the things in your book. Will you be the author of that one? 50 years from now, a better text will outmode that one. And 100 years from now, a more-improved version will relegate that one to humor. And 1000 years from now, all those will look hopelessly naïve, ignorant, and mistaken! And hilarious!
We teach what we know and understand now because that's the best we can do. That's what your book tells, in all good faith, however incomplete or mistaken it may turn out to be. Study it well, use it for all it's worth, learn it as the best anyone can do so far, but learn it as a framework into which the improvements of the future can be plugged in.
[The same can be said for all subjects in which knowledge progresses. Learn all of those subjects with the same perspective.]
TEACHERS: Similar sets of new-to-old textbooks are now available for sale! In stock:
History of Science
Philosophy of Science
We can assemble similar sets in most academic subjects.
Contact normsperling [at] gmail.com to get yours. This is a VERY impressive lesson for students!